Cleopatra’s Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to African Queen

  • By Jane Draycott
  • Liveright
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
  • May 26, 2023

How a once-overshadowed girl became an admired ruler.

Cleopatra’s Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to African Queen

In Cleopatra’s Daughter, her first modern biography, the enigmatic life and rollercoaster fortunes of Cleopatra Selene — the only daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII and Roman general and politician Marc Antony — are lushly rendered by historian Jane Draycott.

Sifting through the fragmentary archaeological and documentary evidence, Draycott attempts to reconstruct the “visible and invisible” life of a woman who endured a series of reversals of fortune that upstaged even her renowned (and often reviled) mother. Born an Egyptian princess, Cleopatra Selene found herself on a trajectory that took her from the heights of royalty to the lows of imprisonment by Emperor Caesar Augustus (nee Octavian). Her resilience and wiles, however, eventually led to her rise again as a powerful ruler and ally of Rome.

Beginning her study with an enchanting depiction of the ancient city of Alexandria and an overview of the Ptolemaic dynasty (including its notable female rulers like Arsinoe II) that reigned in Egypt, Draycott builds the contextual framework to reveal how Ptolemaic women “established a template for female rule in the Hellenistic and Roman periods,” which Cleopatra followed and which her daughter would adopt as the future queen of Mauretania. But first, her origins.

Born in the spring of 40 BCE, Cleopatra Selene and her fraternal twin, Alexander Helios, were the first progeny of Antony and Cleopatra. Draycott admits the historical record is silent on Cleopatra Selene’s first decade of life in Egypt; the author adeptly bridges the gap by providing a general overview of pregnancy, childbirth, and childhood in Ptolemaic Egypt in the mid-1st century BCE. She includes an amusing tidbit on how Cleopatra’s delivery of twins, while a potent confirmation in Egyptian society of a woman’s fecundity, played “into pre-existing negative stereotypes and opinions about her morals held by conservative Romans such as Cicero, as it was often assumed that the birth of twins was indicative of the mother having had sex with two different men, with a twin being fathered by each.”

Noteworthy, also, is Draycott’s claim that Antony was not a significant presence in his daughter’s childhood. Indeed, he did not spend a large amount of time with his Egyptian family until 34 CE, when she was 6 years old. Her mother’s presence would have been limited, as well, due to the queen’s preoccupation with the business of government. Interestingly, it is almost certain Cleopatra Selene enjoyed the same type of education given to her brothers Alexander and Ptolemy Philadelphus (born in 36 BCE).

“Unlike the Romans, the Macedonian royal families had a long history of educating their daughters just as they educated their sons,” writes Draycott. This early exposure to formal learning, along with her notable multilingual abilities, would stand Cleopatra Selene in good stead as a future ruler in her own right.

Her Egyptian idyll came to a sudden end when the Roman Second Triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian fell apart and Octavian came after Antony and Cleopatra, defeating their combined forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. As the notorious drama of the star-crossed lovers climaxed in suicide, Cleopatra Selene and her brothers became the spoils of war; Octavian sent them to Rome for his triple triumph in the summer of 29 BCE. Draycott captures the humiliation and sorrow the children may have felt while being paraded through the streets of Rome, making a contemporary and strikingly apposite allusion:

“While Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios would have been familiar with the sensation of being on public display, this appearance before the inhabitants of Rome was something more akin to Princes William and Harry walking through central London in the wake of their mother’s hearse on the way to her funeral. It must have been excruciating.”

Their new home, oddly enough, was in the blended household of Octavian’s sister, Octavia, a former wife of Marc Antony. Living in the home of Octavia, Cleopatra Selene “was now ensconced at the heart of the family that held the most power not only in the city of Rome but in the whole of the Roman Empire.” This unlikely living arrangement included a trio of half-siblings, the children of Antony and his two former wives. By raising Antony and Cleopatra’s children as Romans, Octavian showed an uncanny sense for keeping his proverbial friends close but his (potential) enemies closer. Cleopatra Selene’s “mortal pedigree was every bit as exalted as her divine lineage,” and thus presented “both a challenge to the emperor’s security and an extraordinary dynastic opportunity.”

In the end, it was Octavia who found a solution for her brother: She played matchmaker for Cleopatra Selene and an exiled North African prince with the Roman name Gaius Julius Juba, otherwise known to posterity as King Juba II of Mauretania. Together, Queen Cleopatra Selene and King Juba II would make Mauretania “a powerhouse client kingdom,” the only one in the west of the Roman Empire. Draycott claims that Cleopatra Selene’s 20-year reign in Africa was “characterized by her attempts to fuse her past and present and create something new and distinctive in the Roman Empire.”

Unfortunately, her life was brief by contemporary standards. Draycott posits that she died in childbirth around age 35, either in 5 BCE or 3 BCE, and then continues the narrative with an incisive analysis of Cleopatra Selene’s legacy upon the Second Ptolemaic Dynasty she created with Juba.

In her short life, Cleopatra Selene stood at the intersection of three ancient cultures, engendering an adaptability that allowed her to succeed where her mother and other queens had failed. During a period when women monarchs were viewed with suspicion, she effectively wielded power over a large and prosperous allied kingdom. Filled with fascinating insights and impressive research, Cleopatra’s Daughter resurrects one of history’s forgotten women “who succeeded quietly rather than failed loudly.”                        

Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher-education IT nonprofit association by day and a major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book-review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, Open Letters Review, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.

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